– Bertha Tobias
“Without community, there is no liberation.” Poet warrior and feminist Audre Lorde’s sentiment speaks to the power of communities to actualise significant socio-cultural changes. Lorde’s statement reminds us that community is responsible for culture and, by extension, the ways in which it governs our everyday lives. More often than not, culture shapes our worldviews and decides our perceptions long before we have the chance to do so on our own. In Namibia, those socio-cultural perceptions arguably play a hugely significant role in perpetuating gender-based violence.
If you’re Namibian (or from anywhere in the world really), you have probably grown up with the perception that women are the inferior gender. The relegation of women to the status of second class citizenhood is manifested in ways big and small. The idea that women matter less is reflected in both large scale policy and small scale practice.
Collectively and individually, we often say to Namibian women: “you matter less.” You don’t need to carry out an academically dramatic evaluation to correctly gauge the consistent infantilization of women in Namibia. You simply need to look and listen.
My own lessons in gender relations began with observations of my own Aawambo culture.
Like many cultures in Africa and all around the world, Aawambo culture makes distinct suggestions about the inherent value of women. It suggests perceptions that range from serious fundamental beliefs, like the idea that women are seen and not heard, to smaller, simply laughable ones such as the idea that certain pieces of meat are only reserved for men. As Aawambo women, we learn that it is more important to ensure that the men in the household are fed before filling our own bellies, figuratively and literally. We learn that a woman who speaks, laughs or lives too loudly is undesirable. We learn that men, unlike women, are not allowed to cook because that would emasculate them, effectively turning them into ‘cowards’. We also learn that a woman who talks back is not ‘marriage material’. These are some of the explicit and implicit ways in which we realise that, to collective cultural belief systems, our lives don’t matter as much as we would like them to.
There are some more structural, persistent ways in which the marginalization of women is reflected through cultural practices. One such operation is Olufuko, an Aawambo traditional practice in which girls as young as 12 are prepared for womanhood, marriage, pregnancy and wifehood. Traditionally, the girls are prohibited from opting out of Olufuko. The widely held belief is that rejection would invite a curse upon them, and the most common response to a girl’s rejection of Olufuko is physical dragging to her newly designated homestead. While Olufuko reflects a deeply disturbing negation of the agency of young women and girls, harmful cultural beliefs are not exclusive to the Aawambo.
In a documentary filmed by The Namibian under the Google Grant, Tjatende Tjiposa, a woman belonging to the Ovahimba cultural group, recounts her experience with being engaged at the age of eleven and leaving her childhood home to be a wife at the age of fourteen. She recalls that, initially, she had refused to go to her husband, until she eventually accepted her reality. Importantly, she attributes her eventual submission to the belief that “it’s simply tradition.”
The restrictive parameters used to define the value of women are prevalent in countless parts of Namibia. In the Zambezi region, ‘Sikenge’ is a common practice. It’s characterized by intensely preparing girls as young as fourteen for marriage. The practice “instils discipline” by teaching girls how to live with their future husbands.
The aforementioned cultural practices are disturbing not only because of their negation of the agency of women and girls, but also because of their technical and theoretical inconsistency with the law in Namibia as it pertains to marriage and, by extension, sexual activity. The legal age of consent to sex in Namibia is sixteen. In the same way, according to the Child Care and Protection Act, the legal age of marriage in Namibia is 21. While it’s important to acknowledge the fact that Namibia operates under a system of legal pluralism which recognizes both common law and customary law, we will eventually have to interrogate the degree to which that leniency as it pertains to women and girls has detrimental socio-cultural effects in the long run.
Conversations about cultural practices are often volatile (and even potentially dangerous) because of the immense sanctity which we often choose to attach to culture. Ironically, the determination with which we hold on to particular cultural beliefs is fundamentally incompatible with the fact culture is inherently defined by its capacity to evolve. It is not monolithic. Our personal and collective culture is whatever we decide it is.
As such, I like to think that any culture which survives and thrives on the backs of women is one which can and should be obliterated.
Arguably, culture can provide a navigational anchor both for individuals and for communities. To many, it serves as a constant point of reference for grounding and structure. We can even go as far as saying that it serves as an ideological and moral sanctuary of sorts to many. In this way, we can acknowledge that culture is not fundamentally and necessarily undesirable. However, collectively, our different cultural beliefs all come down to a dangerously detrimental persistent message that women matter less. This message trickles down into the crevices of our social fabric, and into the psyches of perpetrators of sexual violence. The (normalized) notion of women as inferior ultimately drives perpetrators to act out in ways which confirm that widely held view.
To put it bluntly, if you grew up learning that women are not allowed to have opinions, your natural reaction is to retaliate and “discipline” a woman who does. Likewise, if you grew up believing that women are born to serve men, your natural reaction is to demonize women who don’t. A woman stands up for herself? Hit her. She refuses to cook because she’s tired? Hit her again. She won’t have sex with you? Hit her some more. She’s walking down the road minding her own? Kill her. These are the blunt, painful realities of “culture” which inherently denigrates women.
Bertha Tobias is a 20 year old International Relations and Leadership Studies second year student. She currently serves as Namibia’s Youth Charter Country Representative for the Office of the African Union Youth Envoy. A fellow of the Apolitical Academy, she has served on the frontlines of #ShutItAllDown, a Namibian national protest movement against sexual violence with an estimated combined social and non-social reach of 11 million. She is an Allan Gray beneficiary who has served as a consultant for United World College International Office. Her labour of love is serving as #BeFree Ambassador under the Office of the First Lady of the Republic of Namibia. Most recently, she has been appointed Vice President of the Claremont McKenna College Class of 2024.